Religious Freedom in the United States

Religious Freedom in the United States

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John Gallagher, presidential personnel advisor on the Trump Transition Team and former president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Global Engagement, shares perspectives on the Trump administration’s approach to religious freedom in the United States, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.


John Patrick Gallagher

Presidential Personnel Advisor, Trump Transition Team


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have John Gallagher with us today to talk about religious freedom in the United States. Lieutenant Colonel Gallagher is a retired Army officer with more than 25 years of service, and recently served as an advisor to the presidential transition team on Cabinet-level and other key personnel appointments to the Trump administration. He was previously president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Global Engagement, acronym IGE. There, Lieutenant Colonel Gallagher worked with governments and civil societies in the Middle East, China, and South and Central Asia on governance reform, religious freedom, and countering violent extremism. From 2007 to 2009, he was a White House fellow and director for Iraq and Afghanistan affairs at the National Security Council. And from 2004 to 2007, he taught American politics and counterterrorism at West Point. He is the co-editor and contributing author of “Debating the War of Ideas,” was a Statecraft Fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. And most recently, Colonel Gallagher was selected as a 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar.

John, thanks very much for being with us today. It would be great if you could give us—talk about religious freedom in the United States and give us your perspective on the new administration’s approach.

GALLAGHER: Sure. Thank you to CFR for this venue, especially to Irina, who’s been a steadfast and innovative leader on these topics for many years. Thanks for bringing these conversations together, and to all the participants for joining the call today. I know many of you well, and I know well that each of you have insights to share that could easily serve as the opening remarks in my place.

We have an hour, so I’ll keep my comments relatively short, and hopefully maximize your voices and participation. Just a friendly reminder: today is Valentine’s Day. We originally had the call set for 4 p.m., but knowing I’d likely need the 4 to 5 p.m. hour to overspend on flowers for my wife, we moved it up to 2 p.m., which in a way is planning ahead to not plan ahead.

Some brief points on my background, just to build on what Irina said. I have a hard power background, meaning most of my policy work has been done from the security vantage point. I had an opportunity to work for several senior U.S. generals over the past 10 years in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the Pentagon. But I’ve also had a chance to work in some policy jobs in the Bush National Security Council, as well as watching the Obama team come in, staying at the NSC for six months to observe that.

I did take a step of faith a year and a half ago to lead IGE. It allowed me to step out of the sort of specific defense and national security realm, and more into the work that a lot of us on this call do related to governance and civil society and religious freedom.

But I got a call in September. After literally praying that God would lead my next steps, one second later I got a text that said, would you be willing to come in to the Trump administration and help build out presidential personnel lists; in the event that Trump wins the election, we will take these lists and build out the Cabinet and other key leadership positions. It didn’t take me any time to say yes. And I got to go in and do that, and work with some really, really great people—I mean, just great Americans who put their professional and personal lives on hold to devote themselves to a process that, over the two months I was in Trump Tower, you know, we would just work from first thing in the morning till midnight plowing through these lists, reading into the backgrounds of some amazing Americans, people who no one will ever know that they were on the list but their presence helped shape the way we considered other candidates. And just reading about so many different leaders in this country from so many different sectors was really inspiring to me.

What it also did is it put me back in contact with a mentor of mine from 2010 to ’12, then-General Jim Mattis, now the secretary of defense. I mention General Mattis because he was the commander of CENTCOM during that very tumultuous period of the so-called Arab Spring, the difficulties that we had with Pakistan in those years, particularly following the bin Laden raid, as well as all the instability in Afghanistan. And he taught me something during that period. He said the United States needs to better-define and strengthen a doctrine to work with non-traditional allies. That was a term that he used. And what he—what he meant by that, he went on to describe, it’s no longer the norm that we have clean allies and adversaries around the world; it is far more common that we are working with other nations with whom we have converging interests, and at the same time wildly divergent interests. And he described the importance of finding common ground on the converging interests and using that as a platform to engage these other nations on the issues where our interests wildly diverged.

So, all that said and in that spirit, I’m titling my remarks today “Common Ground is Hallowed Ground.” And somewhat facetiously, the much longer title I didn’t use is faith-based senior leaders like yourselves play a critical role in bringing opponents together for good. The “One Nation Under God” thing depends on it, and America’s ability to lead in the world in a way that helps resolve human crises depends on it. Another informal subtitle: in the few dozen decades we have on Earth, what else do we have going on that’s more important than dedicating the talents God has given us and the resources and professional abilities to this problem?

So, believing that in the Q&A we will get to many of the contemporary issues linked to religious freedom in America, as Irina suggested, please allow me to take these remaining six to eight minutes to describe what I think is—“Common Ground as Hallowed Ground” actually is.

In 2013, I started two or three years’ worth of symposia at the Supreme Court.

(Music plays.)

Just want to make sure we’re still good on the call.

FASKIANOS: I think we are. Sorry about that, John. I’m not sure why that music came in. Go ahead.

GALLAGHER: No problem, just making sure. Thanks.

So I started up at a statecraft symposium at the Supreme Court in 2013, and the concept was to bring military officers together with the Supreme Court justices because they share the task of supporting and defending the Constitution, each in our own way. Those days were spent discussing key issues and just sitting with probably up to five of the nine justices. And one year it was—I think it was the 800-year anniversary of the Magna Carta, if I’m doing the math right—two of the justices talked all the way from the Magna Carta through Hobbes and Locke and Montesquieu, and finally got to the miracle at Philadelphia, Constitutional Convention in 1787. And one of them said this miracle has freedom at its core, and at the core of that freedom is religious freedom. This was never meant to be defined as freedom to do what you want, though limited government does allow for a lot of that, but it was meant to define freedom as citizens, from which government draws it legitimacy, to participate actively in the decisions and civic direction of our nation. So freedom defined as the ability to participate in the civic direction and decisions of our nation. They said it hadn’t been done before, it was a big deal, worth preserving, must be taught, a teaching is a conscious act.

So, with the few minutes I have left, I’m just going to talk about what I think is some really good news. With all of the instability or uncertainty or polarization in America around deeply-held issues, many that link back to the concept of religious freedom, I think there is good news. So let me draw upon a couple of—a couple of scholars on this issue. I’ll refer to some of the things that they’ve said and describe what I think this common ground is, and it spans from those in the Trump administration to those outside of it, and it crosses the many different lines that make up the diversity of this nation.

Roger Scruton is a U.K. philosopher who said: “The freedom to participate in the process of government, and to protest against, dissent from, and oppose the decisions that are made in my name, confer on me the dignity of citizenship.”

Some of you may know Adam Jaworski, a scholar from Poland. He talks about the institutions that make up representative government where people can adjudicate their competing claims. He says: “Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. Conflicts are never resolved, only temporarily satisfied. Democracy makes winners and losers, and why would the losers choose to comply with the results? Because the policy losers of today can become policy winners tomorrow by reengaging the institutions, not by reaching for their guns.”

Third, a guy named Bernard Manin from France, he described, quote, “The four principles that have invariably been observed in representative regimes, ever since this form of government was invented”—again, on this score, I think we’re doing well—number one, “those who govern are appointed by election at regular intervals; two, the decision-making of those who govern retains a degree of independence from the wishes of the electorate; three, those who are governed may give expression to their opinions and political wishes without these being subject to the control of those who govern; and, four, public decisions undergo the trial of public debate.”

And finally, I’ll quote author of “Democracy’s Discontent,” Harvard’s Michael Sandel, who wrote in 1998 about the importance of religious virtue and freedom of conscience in society. He said: “What makes a religious belief worthy of respect is not its mode of acquisition—whether by choice, revelation, persuasion, or habituation—but its place in a good life; or, from a political point of view, its tendency to promote the habits of and dispositions that make good citizens.”

I think preserving these common-ground ideas are the miracle at Philadelphia. I think “miracle” is the right word. I took part in a talk at CFR last week with Walter Russell Mead and the editor of The Daily Beast, John—forgetting his last name for a minute. But he wrote a book on Washington’s Farewell Address. And I thought it was interesting during the talk I think Walter Russell Mead referred to Washington’s Farwell Address as kind of the Old Testament of America’s first principles, Gettysburg from Lincoln the New Testament, and maybe we could add Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” as Revelation, Acts, and Timothy all mixed into one.

To the extent that we can find common ground on these ideas, then we don’t squander this type of freedom that the Supreme Court described. And I think it allows us to answer what I think is sort of the big-picture question that all societies and governments have to face, and that is, for governments that seek to lead, governments must seek to lead in a way that is legitimate and leaves a worthy legacy. So the question is: How does a government provide security, justice, and human flourishing, while allowing—even enabling—all of its citizens to full embody their religious and cultural identities, and in doing so contribute to society’s best present and future?

As a retired military officer, let me close by quoting Clausewitz, who says “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” If we move out the—if we replace the word “war” with “engagement and leadership in the world,” hopefully avoiding wars or winning those that must be fought or alleviating human crises, then we should be concerned that the more polarized American politics becomes, the more our ability to lead in the world will be impeded by this. And instead of America leading regardless of who’s in the White House, we can zig to the left and zag to the right, and other nations will begin to hedge against us. And it makes us a lot harder to solve at home or abroad some of these really key issues related to religious freedom and other deeply-held convictions around the world.

And so I think the responsibility falls to us to take this opportunity seriously, to engage American politics built on this common ground so that our ability to lead in the world is improved, because, after all, human dignity applies to all of us, Americans or not. And especially I think the people on this call can play a very important role in finding and building upon this common ground during this new administration.

Thank you for letting me go over a little bit, and I’m happy to take your questions.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you, John. Let’s open it up to the group for questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Paul de Vries with New York Divinity School.

DE VRIES: Yes. Thank you so much, Colonel Gallagher, for your insights and optimism.

I appreciate your several references to freedom of conscience, and I think we have a difficult time in our—in our own time now, 2017, of seeing changes in our world and at the same time respecting freedom of conscience of people that don’t agree with those changes. For example, there’s been a history of nurses at hospitals being able to choose not to participate in abortion. But with changes in marriage law, there seems to be difficulty in respecting photographers or bakers that don’t want to have strong tie-in with marriage situations. So what do you see as perhaps the limits of freedom of conscience? How do we respect everybody and yet everybody ends up feeling respected?

GALLAGHER: Yeah, thank you. That’s a great question.

And again, this is really sort of a classic issue, I think, of public policy. I don’t think you really have a public-policy issue if adjudicating competing claims doesn’t mean that parties with very sincerely-held claims are not—in the process don’t end up a little bit dissatisfied at the outcome. If you could solve one of the issues, some form of freedom of expression without infringing upon some of the claims of the other party, you really in my mind wouldn’t have a complex policy issue on your hands.

So you referred to sincerely-held belief on perhaps the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and yet the right for adults to express their love for one another in marriage across same-sex boundaries, or some of the free-speech issues related to I think it was a Christian-owned bakery being asked to put a certain slogan on a cake. Look, I would—I would refer this in many ways to this balance between an encumbrance and a preference. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with the literature that refers to an encumbrance in public policy is something that’s inherent to your identity—so racially, African-American, encumbered by—there’s no negative connotation to the word “encumbrance”—encumbered by one’s ethnic identity, gender. These are things you can’t change about yourself, and these encumbrances deserve respect in public policy, acknowledgement as part of one’s identity.

You could argue possibly that Christianity’s view in public policy as an encumbrance has been downgraded a little bit, and maybe religion generally, but I think Christianity in America more specifically been downgraded a little bit to a preference. That doesn’t seem to hold as much weight in public policy when it conflicts with other encumbrances, and that might be a decent lens through which you look at some—how some of these policy issues are adjudicated.

The example of the LGBT community asking a Christian bakery I think to put a slogan on top of a cake—not just serve them, but to put a slogan supporting gay marriage—that creates a complex policy issue. The bakery lost, as I understand it, and there was even an effort to prevent them from raising money for their own legal defense, I think. I think if you reversed that and made it somebody deliberately targeting a Muslim-owned frame or print shop to print something that they didn’t believe in or print, you know, let’s just say a picture of the prophet Muhammad or something that the owners would find deeply offensive, I don’t know how that would turn out.

I hope that these—I hope that these conflicts are not pursued in a way so that one side can vanquish the other side. But unfortunately, drawing that line is—that is part of the beauty of our process, but it’s also part of the difficulty of it. And I think in many ways minorities—I do not mean ethnic minorities, but a fraction of people in society who are competing with one another in these ways can actually begin to define how the broader constructive majority, who would otherwise get along and build on common ground, relate to one another. And that’s something that we need to worry about, I think, in the U.S. between race relations or marriage issues or abortion or issues related to immigration, whether it’s the recent issue of Muslim immigration or just immigration in general.

So I’m concerned, as you are. None of this policy stuff is easy. But I think, for me, an explanatory lens is this difference between how policy treats an encumbrance and a preference.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Jay Kansara with Hindu American Foundation.


FASKIANOS: Yes, go ahead. Mmm hmm.

KANSARA: Hi. Thank you.

And so my question is regarding American aid and foreign policy. Oftentimes, from our research, we find that American aid dollars, which are taxpayer-funded, are going to assist—or are going to assist Christian missionary organizations in their efforts to do development work overseas. Now, while I understand that many of these organizations do good work, their objective as organizations is also to proselytize and to convert others into their faith, and we find that to be a violation of the First Amendment as well as the Establishment Clause. How can—how will President Trump and his administration reconcile these concerns of organizations that seek full integrity of the Establishment Clause? Thank you.

GALLAGHER: Thanks. That’s another great question.

First, let me just be clear: I’m not serving as a spokesman for the Trump administration. I will give you my own opinion, having worked a bit in that space and having seen now two, a little bit three, administrations having to deal with that.

I think what it comes—I think there’s a threshold. You could even maybe say it’s a rheostat where it gets set on the degree to which these organizations doing legitimate development work in the service of in this case USAID or the State Department’s mission overseas. I think it just comes down to a threshold.

I personally do not support a penalty for organizations, whether it’s hospitals or aid, that are doing work around the world, that are helping human beings where their need is acute, and eliminating them from performing that service because they’re a faith-based organization. Certainly, I don’t think you necessarily should attempt to sanitize or secularize those organizations, just like I don’t think we need to do that with Catholic hospitals or Catholic schools here in America regarding let’s just say abortion in the case of Catholic hospitals.

But again, from one situation to the next, it would be great if there was a clean rule of thumb. There almost never is. And so my guess—at least from the limited amount of time I’ve spent with some of the key leaders in the Trump administration, my guess is they are going to look to support wherever possible organizations that are doing good for people in need that does what Washington said, is that it advances America’s interests guided by justice. And helping other people around the world go from unstable, uncertain environments and environments where they live in fear to greater certainty and stability is not only in their interest, but it’s in our interest, and I think it should be valued in U.S. development policy.

Saying where exactly the threshold is for those organizations and individuals in them who have a sincerely-held religious belief and share that belief in the conduct of their duties or outside of their duties, it’s hard—it’s hard to draw that line. But I personally am a little bit more comfortable in erring on the side of allowing these groups to be a part of the landscape of development groups that do work around the world, and they are very often the best at it. And unless there’s something really egregious, I think we should look to keep all of the players on the playing field in this regard.

FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Peg Chemberlin with Minnesota Council of Churches.

CHEMBERLIN: Hi. Thank you very much. Can you hear me?


FASKIANOS: Yes, we can. Thank you.

CHEMBERLIN: Thank you.

One of the issues that many of us are concerned about is the Establishment Clause and the way in which government support or allowance of the organizations we’ve been talking about might lend itself towards establishment. Could you speak to the establishment issue? And what are the pitfalls in that discussion where we need to be looking at?

GALLAGHER: Can you expand just a little bit or tell me just a little bit more of kind of what you’re getting at? I mean, the Establishment Clause issue, obviously, it’s a Constitution-based issue. It gets—as I just said in the previous question, it gets a lot more unclear on how it would apply to what we do around the world. Can you just rephrase a little bit or clarify the question?

Q: Yes. Well, let me give you an example and see if that helps us. We have a lot of faith-based international development work, a lot of faith-based refugee resettlement work done with Department of State, with federal dollars supporting that. If an organization is doing that work and exhibiting its particular faith base to refugees or with the refugee staff, does that become an establishment issue? Does that make sense? Because that’s federal dollars funding programs that are doing—trying to establish their own faith base, in a sense.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, I appreciate the question. I think in some ways it’s the same as the previous question, but different in that the jurisdiction is—it sounds like you’re saying is domestic, you know, here in the U.S.

Again, there’s no doubt—I don’t have in front of me sort of the body of either regulations or sort of case law that would govern that. But there’s an article, boy, written in First Things I think in 2002 called—it talks about separation of church and state—no penalty, no privilege. A guy from Notre Dame writes it, and he basically talks about this sweet spot or this nexus where we recognize the virtues and value and contribution of faith-based organizations to the common good and to public life. And, in fact, I would say part of what makes America as great as we are is that—is valuing those things accordingly.

And then, how much do you want to then trace U.S. dollars that make their way to some of these stakeholders that are performing a public good to say, well, we found money that goes from the U.S. government down to these groups, and therefore these groups need to secularize or the money gets cut off. I actually think, then, something else is—something else that has social value gets lost if we were to take sort of that hard line of a few.

So where do you draw the line? Again, like the previous question, it’s hard to say. But this administration, based on at least what I’ve—what I’ve seen and heard, I would refer you to the president’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast. Extrapolating from those, I would say that you can count on this administration to place a great deal of emphasis on these faith-based organizations and the public good that they provide. And yes, we all have to be mindful of Establishment Clause violations. But where I would draw the line, again, I would tend to err on the side of allowing actors that are secular and faith-based to do the great work that they do in American society and in the development work that we do abroad, and then just be careful to apply the law as it’s written regarding the Establishment Clause.

And where there are questions, that’s why we’ve got this great system of the judicial branch to help adjudicate. But specific examples, I think from one to the next you have to look at them and raise concerns if you find them. But again, my preference and what I think the administration’s preference would be is to allow faith-based organizations to flourish and do their best work as much as possible.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Tim Mallard with the United States Army.

MALLARD: Hi, John. Good afternoon. I hope you can hear me OK.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, I can.


MALLARD: OK, great.

I’m intrigued by your use of Secretary Mattis’ term “non-traditional allies” and the linkage of that to your title, “Common Ground is Hallowed Ground.” And every time that there is a change in administration, there’s always a decision point, isn’t there, about how religion will be utilized at the—at the statecraft level, either in terms of value only, or a specific set of policy initiatives, or a balance between the two. And I’m wondering, from your title of today’s talk—which thank you very much for—and your use of Secretary Mattis’ term, if you are forecasting that there will be a balance between religion at the geopolitical level for the United States in the coming four years between a value and a policy across the whole-of-government approach. Thanks.

GALLAGHER: Thanks, Tim. Good to hear your voice again. And in some ways your questions, I think, continues some of the talks that we’ve had in the past.

Here’s another area where I’m hopeful, because I think even over the past eight years and continuing, I think something that the Obama administration and the Trump administration will have in common—because I think we’ve all turned the corner—religion matters, and it matters in the way that we do geopolitics and domestic politics. And I think for a long time, you know, in order to preserve religious freedom, you know, within our constitutionalism, we deliberately don’t want religion to be too close to state power. And being so proud of that sort of separation of church and state at the political level, I think we often make the mistake of engaging other parties in domestic or international politics in a secular way. And it doesn’t—it leads us to, I think, a lot of surprises, and it also can diminish the degree of partnership and trust that is possible when other nations, for example, actually go count on religious norms and beliefs as part of their domestic institutions and how they engage around the world.

So, if you look at what’s happened over the last eight years—but let’s say even if we look at mid-2013—what came out of the Obama White House was the first-ever National Strategy on Faith Community and Religious Leader Engagement. Peter Mandaville I think is on the call. He was a member of an office at the State Department, still there, called Religion and Global Affairs that has a bit of a direct line, I think, to the secretary of state to ensure that issues of religion are accounted for more proactively in the way that we do diplomacy around the world. Of course, we know that the Office of International Religious Freedom—led up until recently by David Saperstein, Ambassador Saperstein—also plays a role.

So there’s a lot of institution-building that took place in the last four or five years, for sure, to account for the issue you raised, Tim. And, again, my projection on this administration is they’re going to be as or even more serious and comfortable with engaging the issue of religion in considerations of foreign and domestic policy. And I think “comfortable” is the right word.

This is not to say an administration will attempt to wield religion to marginalize or persecute, although that is really the topic, right, of much of the public debate right now regarding the executive order on Muslim immigration to the U.S. But I think when the dust settles—and this is why I’ve been so positive in my talk—I actually think those on the call now, those that right now are speaking out against this travel ban, and many of those inside the administration, they’re going to realize that there is a lot more common ground. Religion matters. People matter. Equal citizenship inside the United States matters. America leading around the world to solve important crises matters. How we learn to interact with one another, and how to refine policy decisions that get made or to tweak or create a waiver process for executive orders and other actions that are implemented in a way that have second- and third-order effects that were not intended, that’s going to determine whether we’re successful or not.

But again, I titled this talk “Common Ground, Hallowed Ground” because I think the people on the call can play a big role as faith-based leaders in bringing the two sides together so that we get done the good that’s possible over the next four years, even if there still remains a degree of either distrust or political separation in the process.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Cindy Crane with Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin.

CRANE: Right. Hello. And thank you, Colonel Gallagher, for all of your insight.

I just want to share some of the concerns that I hear about. I am a Lutheran pastor and work on hunger issues in Wisconsin, and also support our larger church in some of its federal efforts, and I see a lot of people who are concerned that it’s really the wealthiest in the country who are going to be most served. People are worried about losing their health care. People hear presentations like the one from Miller, Stephen Miller, and worry that we’re moving toward an autocratic regime. I just thought I would share that with you. And I would like to ask you—and I know you need to be limited about what you can say—but what are you willing to say about what you’re most concerned about with this administration?

GALLAGHER: Thank you so much.

So here’s something that I’ve observed. I really had never participated in anything close to a campaign, and even the presidential personnel process that I did for three months was really kind of walled off from the campaign itself so that we could work through the lists. And then—once Trump won the election, then we were brought up to Trump Tower to—that really became—a lot of the focus of the transition is picking the people.

I learned a lot during the process, but the one thing that stand out—and maybe it’ll address both parts of your question—is that, boy, do we tend to—our political process tends to really favor candidates who are willing to—either willing to do this or willing to sound like they’re going to do this, that I say vanquish and contain the other side. So, in order to make it through our primary process and in order to sort of be the nominee, and in order to carry the day on the general election, I mean, there was a whole lot of rhetoric on both sides which says, to me, trust me, I will win, vanquish the ideas or the policies of the either previous administration or of my opponent, and I will contain the ideas of the other side. And in the process of sounding that way as people go through our primary and general election process, I mean, I think it’s really easy to create a caricature that is not baseless, but is taken beyond sort of like a reasonable magnitude on any of our candidates. And Trump has very much been sort of the anti-candidate, right?

So there’s plenty of material there to draw upon to say: I know the nature and intentions of this administration. And I think we could say this even if we were sitting here and Hillary was the president. And it’s an issue we even saw in Afghanistan, having troops on the ground. There are these perceptions outside of the actual behavior/decisions/policies of either troops on the ground or the candidate in office, that we tend to come in and there’s a public perception of the nature as sinister and the intentions as malicious. And with those two lenses on either side of the actual behavior of the administration, it makes it really, really easy to find sort of confirming steps or activities that fit the script that has been written for the very sort of sinister and malicious actor that somehow got inside the White House.

So, for me, having seen the Bush administration up close, the Obama administration come in, and then played a small role up in Trump Tower interacting with a lot of these folks, everybody has issues. And we really—in all my time, remembering back to like the election of Bill Clinton in ’92, we’ve almost had presidents for the last 25 years that have been presidents of half the country. If you think about sort of normatively how America has reacted to Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump, we’re going on 25 years of having presidents that are president of half the country.

I would just say, having seen each of those—the last three administrations, it’s more important than ever to extend the benefit of the doubt to your view or the view of those in Wisconsin, or those who are worried about an autocratic sort of take-care-of-the-wealthy era ahead, and look for an opportunity, again, to build off of this common ground. I mean, it’s really, really important to lean in, not to disengage, and try to find not just ways—not just ways to assume good intentions—and there will be steps and there will be—in every administration there are bad or highly partisan actors who are super-ideological and do want to vanquish and contain the other side. But I don’t think the going-in position for the Trump administration should be that, despite this historically polarized election that we’ve just seen, or even things that have happened in the first month that people would say, hey, I wholly disagree with that. I don’t want to see that genie outside the bottle and then it takes four years to try to build a sense of common ground, or nothing is going to get done in this country politically over the next four years. And a lot has to get done.

Sorry if that’s not a satisfying answer, but that’s really where I see we are right now. And I want more and more Americans to kind of lean in and engage, not to disengage. And I fear that even after only 30 days there’s a whole lot of disengagement going on.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Marion Boteju with Catholic Charities.

BOTEJU: Hi. Thank you. This is Marion Boteju with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. I just want to thank you for hosting this topic and speaking to it so eloquently.

I think there’s a lot of—you have a lot of—relief is probably kind of an interesting word to use in these times, but certainly an appreciation for the administration’s acceptance and accolade of the work of faith-based organizations and the human-service base, and really to knitting the fabric of what the United States has come to be. And so that—kind of the acknowledgement of the work of faith-based organizations and a desire to uphold religious freedom, freedom of conscience, religious liberty, at least the conversation about that I think is very welcome.

What advice or kind of suggestions would you have, I mean, for organizations who are involved with human-service work that are directly impacted by some of, you know, the executive actions that have been released, particularly as it relates to immigrants and refugees, to the point of engagement, right? So how do we engage and hopefully try to inform some of the policy formation around not just, you know, refugee resettlement, but just immigration and migration generally? What’s the best way to engage with this administration very specifically so that we can help shape some of the policy outcomes?

GALLAGHER: Thank you for that.

I don’t know if everyone saw the letter in The Washington Post four or five days ago signed by 100 Evangelical leaders and—Christian Evangelical leaders. And then there’s some other, you know, 4(,000) or 5,000 who have signed on to the letter. If you read that letter, I actually think that was an extremely effective step because, although the headlines on the letter are “Evangelicals Reject Trump Travel Ban” or Evangelicals, you know, push back or distance themselves, forget the headlines for a minute. Go read the letter. The letter articulates how deeply-held these Christian leaders view their own faith and their call to treat all human beings as their neighbor, and they refer to their Christian faith as inspiring them to give aid to these refugees who are suffering, many who have lost hope, who don’t have much time left. And then they say: although we also acknowledge that there is a responsibility of the administration to identify in a clear-eyed manner the threats that we face and address those threats, we would ask you to consider the broader implications of the recently-implemented travel ban on these refugee families, who were then stopped in place as they were seeking relief from persecution, and what it means to limit the number of those who can be resettled to 50,000. It’s this great appeal on behalf of their faith to all of the different, very real consequences to the policy decision to people that were never intended to be harmed by it.

So that—to me, that’s constructive dialogue. And, OK, you had to take—they had to take out a full-page ad in The Washington Post. I don’t think it needs to be that way. When I was in the Bush White House on Iraq and Afghanistan issues, there was a lot of uncertainty inside the White House and out on what should be done, and what’s going well and what’s not going well. And we used to bring in leaders, including faith-based leaders, from all sides of the political aisle into the Roosevelt Room and have constructive dialogue with the president or with the national security adviser, Steve Hadley, on some of these issues.

Let me give you just a quick example for everyone on this issue of the so-called travel ban or whatever the different names they’re using. Listen, in 2011 in Afghanistan, there was a lot of news on green-on-blue attacks. Green-on-blue attacks referred to maybe one out of every 30,000 Afghan troops that would just open fire on American troops, killing three or four American troops in each one of these attacks, let’s say. At the time, General Mattis was in command of CENTCOM and General John Allen, who came out as a very strong Hillary supporter during the campaign, a Marine general, was leading the coalition in Afghanistan. These leaders feared that the destructive actions of a very, very small minority of the Afghan Army would create a reflex of suspicion and separation, and begin over time to define the broader partnership that existed between the U.S. and coalition military and the Afghan Army.

And so the steps that they took—again, implementation is the hard part, but the intention was order a step backwards and a cessation of partnered operations between the Afghan military and the coalition forces, and take a good hard look at how they were vetting the soldiers that they recruited from Afghan society to join the military. They checked different lists, they did the intel checks, they looked at their reporting procedures, all in an attempt not only to prevent these lethal attacks from happening, but even more broadly to prevent the actions of a destructive very, very few from defining the broader relationship that was of great value between the coalition military and the Afghan Army.

And so they did a pause. They did a—they did an analysis. They did renewed sort of vetting and intel checks and reporting and everything else. And although the attacks didn’t disappear completely, they became very, very sporadic, very, very few and far between. And the broader partnership, I think, was preserved by it.

That’s not what you heard as this travel ban was rolled out. And the idea that the consequences of being able to travel from persecution to safety would accrue to a whole bunch—many, many thousands of people it was not intended to block, that’s a discussion I think is important to have on policy implementation. And implementation, how well something is executed, can sort of project backwards on whether it was a good idea at all.

But what I’m saying is, on an issue like this, these are the two sort of competing priorities that we’re trying to resolve, and one is extending dignity and compassion to people fleeing persecution who want to come to the United States, at the same time acknowledging that the threat—that has only been getting worse over the last 15 years—is real, it’s active, and it is seeking to disrupt societies from the Middle East to Europe to the United States. And how do you reconcile those two things? In my mind, you got to get the policy right, but the intention of eliminating the very real threat from a destructive few in order to preserve the broader relationship between the United States and other nations, or non-Muslims and Muslims here in the U.S., is a worthy policy priority. You got to get it right, but it is a worthy policy priority. And watching this play out in Afghanistan many years ago serves as sort of a good parallel for me to try to understand it.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Soraya Deen with Muslim Women Speakers.

DEEN: OK. Thank you so much.

You know, on September 11th, 2007, my 7-year-old son was told he was a terrorist. And when I look at 2017, we, the Americans who are Muslims, we have gone backwards. Our challenges have increased, and the fear is mounting. So my question is—I always say the administration, particularly our president, he must talk to us, not about us. And my question is: What is it that we can do to engage the administration? Now, I empower Muslim women to tell their stories. I work in the field of deconstructing our received theology, and I—and I challenge doctrinal legitimacy for violence in all scripture.

So I work relentlessly because home for us now is where our children are being raised, and we feel very alienated. There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of reaction, not responses all the time. I would like to take a message back to my community. And I fully think we should work—as you said, Mr. Gallagher, we have to lean in and not disengage. And I am willing—we are willing. How can we do that?

GALLAGHER: Yeah. Well, great question.

Let me just say, from a practical standpoint, I was—I was in graduate school in 2002, so 9/11 was very fresh on everybody’s mind. And I’m telling you, it was almost unanimous on the left and right side of the political aisle; people thought these—this broader extremist worldview was bankrupt, and there was no resonance, and that it would die off, and strategic victory or sort of strategic marginalization of violence driven by this extremist worldview was just around the corner.

And 15 years later—I think there’s an article by Seth Jones out of RAND, 2014, and it shows how there were 19 active groups on 9/11, and by 2014 there were 50 active groups around the world. And the death toll from this extremist violence had skyrocketed, and the amount of funding and virtual supporters and physical recruits and geography that these groups controlled had all increased, meaning the problem went exactly the opposite direction that people thought it was going to go.

Unfortunately, when that’s happening—and that’s a reality—it is—to me, it is very natural that people who don’t understand what’s going on and people who are afraid, they find some of this—I think suicide terrorism is among the most gruesome of all human behaviors, and simply the most illegitimate. And for this to be so commonplace that it barely makes the news anymore around the world, actually that is the sad, unfortunate landscape or backdrop within which your son in 2017 I think you said, at age seven, might be told—I don’t know who, by a classmate or someone—but, hey, you’re a terrorist just because you’re a Muslim.

It’s sad. It shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t need to happen. But please keep in mind a world that is confused and scared and observing these events getting worse and not better over a decade and a half is susceptible to, I think, some of those suspicion and separation reflexes.

Your question is, what can we do about it? My whole talk today in many ways speaks to what can we, the constructive majorities on the positive side of the line, do about it.

I actually think—I mean, the NGO that I led from 2015 to 2016, Institute for Global Engagement, and other organizations like that, it is an entire community of people trying to find positive constructive actors of a faith-based nature who can change the dynamic that gets caused by these very public headlines of brutal violence that people can barely understand. And so I would only encourage you to look for opportunities to form those partnerships across what might otherwise be comfortable boundaries, you know, whether it’s a gender boundary or an ethnic boundary or a religious boundary. Again, common ground is hallowed ground. And then look for the access points that exist now in the administration, and access points that exist in the State Department and Department of Defense and other organizations that are in government, to build on this understanding.

Now, I say all this with a bit of a caveat. And with respect, we are kidding ourselves if we think there are no duplicitous or insidious, destructive actors that weave themselves into the engagement process. So we have to be careful of that, too, right? If you’re going to be any good at waging—you know, if one is an extremist seeking to impose one’s ideo-religious worldview on others in contrary to those principles that I read from 2002, then the process of engagement that you’re asking how can we get better at also has to be shrewd, lest you wind up facilitating or enabling some bad actors that have woven their way into the engagement landscape.

So it’s out there. I mean, it is a flourishing—it is a flourishing field, this type of engagement. I’d just put that caveat on at the end and hope that we can—we can make inroads, because I do believe, you know, the vast majority of the West and the—the so-called West, if you will, the West and the so-called rest, if you will, are on the same side of the line. We seek civic peace and want to treat each other with respect and dignity. But that is not the story for a small fraction. And like my example in Afghanistan and the Afghan Army, if we don’t find a way to address the very brutal, inhuman activities of that small faction, that will increasingly define the dialogue and dialectic between the broader groups, who are all on the same side of the line.

FASKIANOS: And we’ll take the final question from Peter Mandaville, who you mentioned earlier on the call, John.

MANDAVILLE: It’s Peter. How are you? It’s good to hear from you here, and thanks for taking the time to talk through these issues with us.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about how you think the new administration views the work of the various offices across multiple federal agencies that are kind of focused on the effort of faith-based outreach and engagement. Obviously, this is a trend that began under the Bush administration, and if anything was only expanded under the Obama administration. So I’m wondering if there’s anything you can tell us about how the Trump administration is viewing and thinking about the work of those offices.

I’m particularly interested in—you know, at the State Department for a long time the Office of International Religious Freedom was the only office there that had the word “religion” in its title, and often anything to do with religion kind of, by consequence, fell to them. But with the opening of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, you had a new space that was, you know, less about advancing the cause of international religious freedom—you know, a specific human rights function—and more about the idea of engaging religious actors to advance the kind of full range of policy priorities that the U.S. cares about. And so I’m wondering if you can tell us anything about how the new administration thinks about the distinction between those two functions.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, that’s a great question, Peter. Great to hear your voice.

So not—so not speaking from the vantage point of religious freedom as a human right priority, but more broadly—a little bit I talked to earlier—about how do we even treat the institutions that were created to account for the impact of and role of religion and religious actors in the way that we do policymaking, or the way that the U.S. government engages. Absolutely critically important. Again, I voted with my feet in leaving the Army to work a little bit more directly on some of these governance, civil society, and religious issues a few years back.

Actually, you know, my honest answer is I think this is the defining time right now. I was at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism I think it was 2014, I’m pretty sure, and this was after the very public ISIS beheading in August of let’s just say—forgive me if I’m getting the year wrong—but, say, August of 2013, and the summit was in February of 2014. And I remember hearing President Obama speak at the summit, and his talking points started to turn a little bit of a corner. He said, although I don’t think that the actions of these violent extremists are, you know, in furtherance of anchored on the religion—religious tradition of Islam—you know, he said that, and people were quite comfortable with him saying that because he said that all the time—he then turned the corner a little bit and he said, but let’s be honest with ourselves: a lot of the attitudes and hostility toward, you know—across sectarian lines, or hostility toward the West, particularly the United States, that foster what later becomes violent extremist activity emanates from Muslim communities around the world.

So he said those two halves, if you will, and then spent, I think, the remaining couple of years saying, OK, now that we’re comfortable with putting both of the halves out there, how do we find the constructive actors and engage religion in a way that does good and not harm? Because this is a sensitive, sensitive space, and one that certainly—you know, non-Muslims are not experts on the—on the doctrines within the religious tradition, but you can’t ignore these partnerships anymore. So how do we take advantage of that? That’s what I—that’s what I felt I saw the last two or three years of the Obama administration go through.

If I’m the Trump administration—again, my own words here—I think there’s probably a starting point that says I don’t think the Trump administration placed the proper urgency and importance on the magnitude of this threat, how widespread it is, and how ominous it is to destabilize, you know, American interests overseas, in Europe, and the United States, and we need to crank up awareness of how serious and insidious this threat is, right? So maybe that’s the opening position.

The reason I say this is sort of the defining period, Peter, is because I think as key personnel decisions are being made and people are being selected to fill the key jobs—political appointment jobs in these offices, those offices need to be ready to say here’s how we engage religion, here’s how religion can make America’s efforts abroad and at home, related to guarding against threats, but even more broadly than that just understanding the role of religion in the way that we do what we do around the world, here’s why it is—it is essential, it’s important, it’s ready, and it is not merely a creation of the past administration. It’s something that has been a long time coming, and we’re finally adding that dimension to the way that we think and make policy; we can’t afford to step backwards on that. And, oh, by the way, I actually think it is useful to make sure that the whole nation is aware of sort of the magnitude and urgency of the threat itself as sort of the other half of the way we look at this particular issue.

So I think it’s a bit of a tryout right now. The window is open. And will these offices make clear what they’re able to do and contribute to the way that this administration wants to use the State Department and engage and lead around the world? And I think the offices are ready, from what I know about them. And I think they will be ready and make the case, and it will be compelling. But it’s not a guarantee, as you point out. And so, who knows, we could see some of the offices going away. I hope not, because I think they’re useful. And it took us—you and I and everybody—a long, long time to get some of those institutions created over the last five or six years.

FASKIANOS: Well, John, thank you very much. We’ll have to wait and see. We appreciate your taking the time to be with us today and to share your insights on the Trump administration’s approach and your own views on these issues, so thank you again for being with us.

And thanks to everyone else on the call. We appreciate your continued involvement. We encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources.

So thank you all again. And thank you, John Gallagher.

GALLAGHER: Thank you, Irina. Thanks, everyone.


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